Walter F. Mondale: Resolved: Fix the Filibuster

[Walter F. Mondale, the 42nd vice president, was a Democratic senator from Minnesota from 1964 to 1976.]

WE all have hopes for the New Year. Here’s one of mine: filibuster reform. It was around this time 36 years ago — during a different recession — that I was part of a bipartisan effort to reform Senate Rule 22, the cloture rule. At the time, 67 votes were needed to cut off debate and thus end a filibuster, and nothing was getting done. After long negotiations, a compromise lowered to 60 the cloture vote requirement on legislation and nominations. We hoped this moderate change would preserve debate and deliberation while avoiding paralysis, and for a while it did....

People give lots of reasons for not reforming the filibuster. The minority often claims that it needs the filibuster to ensure that its voice is heard, even though the filibuster is now used to prevent debate from ever beginning. What really gets me, though, is when opponents to reform point to the provision left in Rule 22 after 1975 saying that the Senate cannot change any of its rules without a two-thirds supermajority to end debate.

This requirement cannot constrain any future Senate. A long-standing principle of common law holds that one legislature cannot bind its successors. If changing Senate rules really required a two-thirds supermajority, it would effectively prevent a simple majority of any Senate from ever amending its own rules, which would be unconstitutional. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution states: “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings.” The document is very explicit about the few instances where a supermajority vote is needed — and changing the Senate’s procedural rules is not among them. In all other instances it must be assumed that the Constitution requires only a majority vote....

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